The Rocky Road to Clinical Psychology training for BME applicants: A personal Perspective.

The question I am the most often asked when I meet people considering a career in Clinical Psychology (CP) or preparing their applications for CP training courses is: how did you make it -meaning how have you managed to obtain a training place?  When the person asking the question, like me, is from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background, an added sense of bewilderment can often be sensed from their gaze.  The subtext being communicated is instantly understood.  In the non-verbal communication what is left unsaid essentially reads as:  ‘How did you make it as a Black person’.  Of course, many a time people have been less subtle and made explicit reference to my race/ethnicity.

The latest figures reveal that for last year’s entry only 2 % and 3% of Black and Asian applicants were respectively accepted onto CP training. It appears it may be about 10 times more difficult for Black and Asian people to get accepted onto CP than to get into medicine! I do believe that there are systemic issues which make gaining a training place more difficult for BME applicants (more on this in due course) some of these may become evident in the rest of this post.  Nevertheless, in the first instance, I simply aim to share my experience and learning in the hope that they may be of some use to someone.

So I did I ‘make it’?

I often think that I got into the field through the back door. I decided relatively late that I wanted to train in clinical psychology which meant I had to return to university to obtain the degree needed, work toward acquiring the required ‘relevant experience’ later than average and in the main via non-traditional routes.  I have never been an Assistant Psychologist (AP) or a Research Assistant (RA) as I had to focus on getting jobs which paid the bills, with children and living in London at the time, the salary of an AP or RA post was not an option for me, let alone volunteering on equivalent ‘Honorary’ posts (the overwhelming majority of applicants selected for training have held such posts).

Most of my pre-training experience was acquired working at management level in the field of community engagement.  Many recruiters may simply not have given my application a second look.  Indeed, I was told several times by, I have no doubt, well intentioned people; that I did not ‘fit the mould’. Some of those helpful individuals were University tutors.  I could understand that a more mature Black mother of a different cultural background with English as a second language may be at odd with the training mould.  However, why it seemed so important that I fitted it baffled me as did the apparent lack of reflection upon such expectations. Aware that my work experience would not tick the boxes of many courses (or at the very least not earn me sufficient points to hope to get an interview) I sought to incorporate AP and RA skills and activities within my roles.

What did I do?

I gathered the courage to knock on the door of people I did not know; told them about me and my work and sought support and opportunities.  Most people* were beyond supportive, heard me, suggested some strategies and strongly encouraged me to apply and to persevere. They helped me own and appreciate the skills and experiences I had acquired professionally outside psychology and to realize how valuable they could be to clinical psychology practice. Eventually, I managed to get some research supervision by a clinical forensic psychologist on a couple of community research projects I was leading on within my main Job. Subsequently, and through my newly established network, I obtained an additional paid part time post (as a Carers ‘s Group Facilitator) under the supervision of another CP within an Early Intervention in Psychosis service.  It was tough going.  I had two jobs, one full time and one part time; both demanding.  I was also doing my MSc full time and running a home with two kids well under 10 at the time.  After completing my Masters, I decided to enrol on a counselling psychology course as a possible alternative career plan. I was able to do this because I had managed to secure a revenue stream doing some consultancy and management work. Counselling psychology allowed me to get further supervision from yet another CP within a Medium Secure Unit where I completed a yearlong placement (I also simultaneously completed a shorter placement with a bereavement service).

So, what have I learnt that could be passed on to aspiring clinical psychologists who may not fit the mould?

Relationships, professional connections and being kind go a long way.  Being friendly may be the easiest to manage but relationships and connections can be built even if you start from not knowing anyone in the field. Brush on your networking skills! An easier place to start for those expecting a First Class Degree may be to ask their research project‘s supervisor(s) at University for any volunteering opportunities and/or for ways to continue with some aspect(s) of their research thesis under his/her supervision or that of a colleague, even if only for a few hours. Aim to get to know everyone within the teaching team.  There is no doubt about your academic skills if you’ve achieved a First Class degree (yes, I do believe anyone serious about CP should aim for a First Class degree especially those who belong to groups whose academic abilities have traditionally been questionned). It is a lot less competitive to get research experience in this fashion. For those who wonder, I did not get a First (I ended up with a mid 2.1).

Clinically, if you cannot get an AP post, do not be disheartened aim instead to work toward gaining clinical and/or research supervision by clinical psychologists. Try and prioritise posts that will give you direct contact with service users ideally; within the NHS.  It is easier to have or establish some contact with clinical psychologists if you’re in the NHS. However, it is possible to work outside mental health services or within the voluntary sector and to forge links with (and even obtain supervision by) local NHS clinical psychologists but, you may have to be more pro-active and/or creative.  Make yourself known.  Gather staff’s research interests, develop proposals in these areas and ask them for some input/supervision.  Any fear of rejection definitely needs to be under control. If you come across as prepared, professional, confident and clear in terms of the level of input you require, I believe most people will try and help.

The most valuable lesson I have learnt is to strategize.  The odds are largely against you. Thus,  having a clear strategy will help you identify ways to increase the odds in your favour.  I suggest taking a project management approach and working toward a plan.  You may also find that having clear objectives and targets support you when you feel like you are not getting anywhere. This will help you keep the small victories in mind. Do not sell yourself short however, remember every job opens the door to the next one and provides learning opportunities.  It is incredibly important that the profession becomes more representative of the population it serves.  Your skills, experience and knowledge are extremely valuable.

Having an alternative career plan does not make you any less committed or suitable for training.  If you’re developing one, consider sister disciplines.  Many professional psychology and psychotherapy courses offer Practitioner Doctorates that have various exit points and are modular or flexible.  Such disciplines would also offer the possibility of acquiring relevant experience and may therefore strengthen any potential CP application.  Naturally and best of all, you could then work toward a plan B simultaneously.  If successful in your application to CP training, you can always exit plan B and possibly even obtain dual qualifications ( if you’re willing to continue with plan B where you left off when you qualify as a CP, assuming you’re not sick of books by then).  There are of course cost implications and I realize I was quite fortunate to be able to put some money towards further studies. However, studying part-time may make the payment of fees more manageable. Further, the impact of working in low paid jobs potentially for years in the hope of getting onto CP training also has financial consequences namely, on earning potential, especially if you eventually do not acquire a professional qualification.

Finally, be prepared for the arduous journey ahead.  Being different may not get easier once you get onto training …more on this in a different post.

* I feel hugely indebted to South London and the Maudsley and the Institute of Psychiatry as this is where the people who answered my knocks on their door were based. Thank you.

To download the Clearing House 2013 Equality Monitoring Data for Clinical Psychology Training Acceptance Rates (click here)
To download the British Medical Association 2009 Equality Report (click here).

Thank you for reading.

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